Starting a Perennial garden

Hostas from wikipedia
Alliums from freephoto stock
Annabelle hydrangea

I have a Perennial guide I wrote about four years ago after taking the UWEX Master gardener course.

Starting a Perennial Garden

     When starting a perennial garden, first observe the light in the area over a few days time. A general guideline is as follows:

Is it SUN?- 6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day (this may be all at once or broken up into morning and afternoon sun.)

PART SUN?- less than 6 hours

SHADE?- Not much dirct sun, but does get filtered sun or reflective light

This is important in choosing the correct plants. Some plants will grow everywhere. Some plants will grow but only bloom or look healthy iln the correct light placement.

You can also go to the Wisconsin  UWEX website for more information on flowers :

As you may have noticed, some plants do well in any area. They are especially good for the beginning gardner and will often multiply or grow large enough after a couple seasons to split allowing you to to take sections and place them in multiple areas of your garden or yard. Iris is a good example of a plant that multiplies and accually does better when thinned after multiplying over a few seasons. Just make sure you cut down the leaves in the fall so you do not have problems with iris borers ruining your iris clumps for more information on iris borers: "It is one of the most serious problems in Wisconsin" flower gardens per the UWEX site.

Hostas- mostly a shade plant, but there are some varieties that will do fine in the sun especially the light colored or yellow variity, they can be split in 1 or two sections and replanted. Some plants are biennials and only bloom every other year or reseed themselves like hollyhocks and columbine.

It is also important to keep in mind that not all of the flowers are in bloom all of the time and some have longer bloom time than others. Some varieties have different bloom times such as daylillies- some bloom in early spring- spring summer fall, it should say on the information tag.  If you use a lot of plants with interesting foliage your garden will be attractive even when there are no flowers blooming. This is also where garden ornaments, statues and evergreens can add a lot, including winter interest.

Some gardens are lovely without any flowers at all: an example may be a hosta garden. Ther are also gardens with all white flowers which are especially lovely at night.

Below is a general idea of bloom time for a few common sun plants. If all of theses are planted in one bed there will be something in bloom almost all season.

If more flowers are desired, nterfacing annuals throughout the bed is also an option.

April May- Bulbs such as tulips, alliums (flowering onions) daffodils, hyacinth (plant them all the previous fall so they can cool or freeze- this is in midwest norther climates, in the south they need to be kept in a freezer first see Colorblends website for more information:

May- June: iris, peonies

June- Clematis, Russian sage which I love and blooms almost the rest of the summer, roses ( a word on roses, these days the new patent roses such as carefree beauty and others can be grwon by anyone. They are bred and selected for disease resistance and cold hardiness. These are not the labor intensive roses of years ago. They do not need to be covered, sprayed or babied as the roses of the past were. They are also more clusters of small flowers rather than the few large prize roses that one may think of when thinking of a rose.

They do look best and appreciate trimming the dead or diseased canes in the spring and a top dressing of compost yearly- more on that later, but they are given the nickname "pavement" roses because they can be seen in many sotre parking lots thriving with neglect.

June- July- Hydrangea- some of my favorite- the patented brands endless summer and blushing bride will cost more but they will bloom longer as they bloom on old and new wood unlike the bushes of yesterday which only bloom on one or the other. The soil ph will determine if you will have blue or pink blooms- pink alkaline- add limestone for this or for blue add acid amendments such as coffee grounds or pine needles. My favorite is still the Annabelle a white old fashioned variety which spreads nicely. Also, daylillies- (you can get more colors than the common roadside orange) and oriental hybrids which have very interesting stalks and leaves. Daisies and coneflowers are a couple more that bloom at this time.

August: Sedums, mums, more daylillies, sunflowers another one of my favorites! Remember this is only a partial list.

Now that you know a little about the area and flowers you want you can start by marking the area for your new flower bed. I always feel larger is better you can always fill in more plants into the area in the seasons to come. If your flower bed is too lare to reach into the center make sure to place some stepping stones inside as you may want to walk into it occasionally to cut a flower, divide or pull a stray weed and you do not want to compact the soil by walking on it.

To mark the new flower bed you can use a hose, or upside down spray paint or a stick and string if you want a circle or square. ) There are many different ofptions of edging, also.

In the past the worst part of starting a garden was the manual labor of ro tilling or removing the sod as well as double digging which is removing as trip of sod and mixing compost and topsoil into the strip going down the line until all of the area is reworked. That is just too labor intensive for me and there are easier ways I have found that I will be happy to share. You can remove the grass/weeds in other easier ways:

1. Placing a thick black or clear plastic tarp over the area and pinning it down. This does take weeks and is called solarization. If you do a search on solarization you can learn more about it.

2. Using a chemical such as Roundup- just remember whatever it touches it kills it is a non selective herbicide. Check the container, usually you can plant in a couple days, it will take over a week to see the grass or weeds die as it needs to go through the plant foliage to the root system to take effect. Just do not get the three month or long acting product as this will obviously kill what you plant after.

3. Using sheets of newspaper over the area (at least 10 sheets) or paper grocery bags- my favorite method and if you forget your green bags when you are at the store you can say " paper", without guilt. Wet the sheets before or after placement to make it easier so they don't blow all over. You can cover the newspaper with straw ( make sure it's not hay or you will have a hayfield!) or any kind of natural mulch. Another option is to put a foot or so of topsoil right on top of the newspaper. You can then plant through, or if using topsoil- on top of the newspaper.

Another good use of newpaper is to line the planting hole with a few sheets to protect the roots of your new plant from tree roots if you are planting under a tree, just make sure you water well  and often as the paper will rob or  absorb water from the roots. By the time the newspaper degrades the plants roots will have a nice head start.

Make sure you take note of the mature sizes of the plants so when you plant them yhou put the talles/largest in the center or back of the bed and the low growing plants in the front or around the edge. Watch our for spreading groundcover type plants so they do not take over your garden, cat mint and gooseneck loosestrife are two to watch out for. you can plant these in a sturdy container in the ground to contain them if you want them to stay where you put them.

A note on planting: When you remove the plant from the pot (there are usually instructions right on the label) break up the roots gently with your fingers, or if they are arrapped around too tight make vertical cuts one on each of the four sides of the root ball so the plant does not continue to grow in a circle and eventually die. Be sure to water the plant well as you are filling in the soil to remove any air pockets and continue to water at dry times for the first season as the plant will be stressed from the planting. Plants prefer a long soak rather than a short sprinkling of wather to get to the deepest roots, at least the first season. The forrst couple seasons after planting it may remain small and may not flower as well as it will be concentrating on building up the root system. You may want to place the plants closer together or use annuals as fill-ins the first couple seasons if you want a full garden bed right away. The saying goes " The first season they sleep, the second they creep, the third they leap" and the next you need to divide!


Make sure to use soil from the area surrounding the plant and mix it with the topsoil and compost additive as the plant will eventually need to grow in the surrounding soil and will be stressed if the surrounding soil is radically different and poor in comprison to the soil that you are planting it in initially.

Mix Compost- there are many different kinds to choose: Mushroom, manure, leaf, and duck droppings (Make sure it is composted or it will burn the plant) I use a different kind each year to topdress my beds so that the nutrients vary.

Mix the compost about a fourth in to the soil and topsoil. Remember in the future you can topdress (and if you wish hadn turn small areas around the plants but this is not mandatory- you can let the worms and organisms do the work) But when first preparing a bed this is your one time to amend the soil. You will get more out of your plants in the future if the soil is good quality. It is better to buy less expensive plants and spend more on the soil than put high quality plants into poor soil. Our Wisconsin soil is mostly clay and needs the addition of compost additives because clay soil drains very poorly and compacts very easily, which is not good for plant roots.

Something else to remember for Wisconsin is we live in zone 5. Wherenever you buy a plant make sure it is hardy to zone 5 or below or it will not return the next season.

Last but not lease: MULCH

Mulch is better than landscape fabric as it breaks down into the soil just as in nature. The worms and organisms naturally in the soil break down the mulch and this in turn replenishes the soil and feeds the roots of the plalnts. It also keeps the soil cool and moist and the weed seeds from germinating. There are many kinds of much: wood chips, straw, and cocoa shells are just a few. Even if landsape fabric is used the mulch will break down and eventually create a top dressing on the fabridc of rich soil for weed seeds to sprout and grow, and there are always tears in the fabric where seeds can sprout.

This is just the basics, there is mcuh more to learn as I am always learning every season.

A lot of it is trial and error. There is a wealth of information on the web through the UWEX master gardener website and many wonderful books and magazines.

Above all enjoy your new garden...

I feel that an established flower garden is less work than a lawn, and much more beautiful, of course, my opinion is biased!

Also, try incorporating some herbs, vetetables and shrubs for more interesting variety.

a few of my favorite sources for  good quality low cost plants:


Huge wonderful Tulips and other bulbs- plant in fall for spring:

and a great source for wonderful prices on hostas and daylillies iris and peonies:

And finally, my favorite place for gardening gloves- the only gloves I can wear without getting my fingernails stained and full of dirt (I wear them under another set just to keep them nice)

Happy gardening!







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